ABUJA, NIGERIA— Nigerian officials say they were demonstrating a commitment to peace talks when the country's security forces released dozens of women and children held in connection with the Boko Haram insurgency. As Nigeria's military continues to hunt down Boko Haram members, though, some analysts say it is too late for dialogue.
Zari Muhammad is free now after being arrested with her husband last year. Her sons had been accused of being Boko Haram members. Now both of her sons are dead and she does not know where her husband is.
Other newly freed prisoners include teenage boys who claim to have taken small amounts of cash to spy or store weapons for Boko Haram, insurgents who say they want to impose Islamic law and secure the release of imprisoned members.
Renewed calls for peace
Asking her questions is Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima, a man who repeatedly has called for dialogue between insurgents and the government. He said the release of these prisoners will pave the way toward peace talks, and he calls on Boko Haram to lay down their weapons.
“The federal government has shown its spirit, its commitment to the whole project by releasing these ladies and kids. And we believe that one good turn always deserves another. We believe it is high time the organization should allow peace to reign in this part of the world,” said Shettima.
Other Nigerian leaders are less enthusiastic about offering pardons - which include cash and often job training - to anyone connected with Boko Haram. The Christian Association Nigeria, known as CAN, repeatedly has rejected calls for peace talks, saying the insurgency should be crushed with military force.
CAN said Thursday its members still are being killed and churches are still being burned in the northeast, where a state of emergency was declared in three states on May 14. Thousands of troops were deployed to the region.
Some analysts say they support the idea of peace talks, and hail the government for releasing prisoners they think may not have been guilty in the first place. Hussaini Abdu, who heads the anti-poverty organization ActionAid in Abuja, said, “Innocent people have actually also been arrested. The bulk of the Boko Haram people are young people ranging from the age of about 15, 16 to about 25. So when you find any young man of that age, you arrest him whether he is Boko Haram or no Boko Haram. Many times there is not even evidence to show they are Boko Haram.”
He said the government has been promising to release women and children for years, but now with the northern battle raging, it may be too late to make a difference.
“The people who are doing the fighting wouldn’t notice because they are also scattered, some of them have been killed. They wouldn’t notice. It’s good for these women who have been unjustifiably detained to be released, but the release is coming at a time that it’s not going to make any major impact,” said Abdu.
The Nigerian military says it has captured hundreds of Boko Haram fighters in more than two weeks of fighting, and it says it has killed dozens of others while securing towns and destroying training camps. In a video released Wednesday to the French news wire service, Abubakar Shekau, the man believed to lead Boko Haram, refuted the military claims, saying Nigerian soldiers were fleeing his fighters.
Between blocked communications lines and barricaded roads, however, no independent observers are on the ground and as of now, reporters can not verify claims of either the military or the militants.